What has gone before: RPG.net.
Fair warning, y’all. This is all about my relationship with a message board ending in my being banned. It’s chock-full of inside baseball, rampant meandering speculation, Culture-War politics, and nostalgia, and unless you’re a current-or-former member, it’s probably of very little interest to you.
It started with Nazis.
Not with actual Nazis, or even Neo-Nazis, mind you. Nor Illinois Nazis, or even our current crop of Edgy Alt-Right Cosplayers. It started with hypothetical Nazis.
For a while, RPG.net’s forums had a very simple, very straightforward moderation policy; create a welcoming platform for discussing gaming for as many groups of people as possible. This was the law of the land for a long time, and it was a good law. Attacks on individuals (Personal Attacks) and demographic groups, any demographic groups (Group Attacks), were prohibited equally. There were individual assholes, yes, and many contentious topics, but they were dealt with on an individual basis. For a long time, the standard of moderation was “An ye hate none, post as thou wilt.”
The first exception was made for Nazis, with many memes and Indiana Jones references. The argument went suchly: Nazis, by virtue of their beliefs, could not help but make RPG.net an unwelcoming experience for many others. Posts made by Nazis would, to the extent that they were made by Nazis, be attack posts. (Mind you, this was about ten years ago, before Nazis had inexplicably become a thing again. There was no poster that people could point to so say “This person here. This Nazi is the problem.) And so it became “An ye hate none (save for this tiny group everyone agrees it’s OK to hate because they’ve harmed us first)…”
It should be clear here that I’m not a free speech absolutist. I’m in favor of basically all speech myself, and hold that the answer to basically any bad speech short of actual fraud or imminent incitement to violence is better speech. But I’m not one of those people who holds that any breach in the traditional American protections to free speech inevitably leads to those exceptions being turned into weapons of silencing by the ones in charge.
However, that’s exactly what happened here. The ban on Nazis grew to include hate groups generally. But things didn’t reach a real head until Gamergate hit.
Gamergate, for the two people on the Internet who haven’t heard of it and don’t already have Very Strong opinions about the Bad People on That Other Side who said all of those terrible things, look at my links right here, I’ve got loads of proof that it was Them saying terrible things about Us and never the other way around, basically started when the partner of an indie game developer revealed to the Internet in a giant post that said developer had cheated on him with a number of men, including one man who had given one of her games notably high ratings. This spiraled into a giant drama-splosion across nearly every gaming site, including RPG.net. And the mods of RPG.net made their decree; one side of Gamergate (the side that was broadly not in favor of this particular indie developer’s relationship) was declared verboten.
This got a lot of pushback. Quite a lot of people said “OK, actual hate groups are one thing, but you can’t seriously be comparing participants in an internet dust-up to actual invade-France Nazis, can you?” And then quite a lot of people were banned for defending hate groups.
RPG.net also was getting more heavily into the Social Justice side of the Culture War as time went on. Most of those changes were quite positive, in my opinion. The atmosphere had always been very free-wheeling and loose, and I didn’t myself much mourn, e.g., the ending of the meme “Hit her up doggy-style in the restroom!” as mandatory advice given in any relationship advice thread (or, this being the internet, pretty much any thread at all where the joke could have been worked in.)
But the move towards Social Justice started becoming pretty obviously unjust on the face of it. Social Justice shibboleths started to creep in. Racially-qualified and sexed aggression, as long as it was pointed towards the right race and sex. Another watershed moment was reached when RPG.net massively expanded their sexism policy to declare a large number of general bad posting behaviors against the rules, but only specifically when they were directed at women.
“Why just for women?” the question was asked by many (including me). “If these are problematic behaviors, why not prohibit them generally?”
“We’ve gotten load of reports from women specifically.”, came the general reply. “We haven’t seen evidence that this is a problem for men.”
Many male posters brought up personal and painful examples of people being dicks to them in ways which perfectly fit the rules, and which had gone unmoderated.
“We’ll take it under advisement.”, said the mod staff. The policies remained unchanged. That was about where I started mentally checking out from RPG.net.
But I had my WIR, and I really did enjoy the electronic gaming portion of the forum, so I stuck around. I’d picked up one or two minor infractions for my participation in the previous kerfluffles, but I mostly stayed out of the most contentious topics, so it wasn’t a big deal for me.
Finally, however, I managed to run headlong into the new way of doing things on RPG.net. I’ve sadly lost the context of my first major infraction (since the sub-board it’s on requires a non-banned registered account to view), but the basic gist of it was in a thread discussing non-offending pedophiles, and the challenges they faced when admitting their desires to anyone, including their therapists under the deepest confidentiality, could end up with their lives being ruined.
I was surprised, then, to hear the vituperative vitriol heaped on those poor unfortunates. Not at it’s mere presence, but that a place was being made for it on RPG.net, which promised equality and a welcoming environment for gamers of all types. What really surprised me, though, was to hear the same condemnations we frequently heard about gay people less than two decades ago being brought up without comment.
So I commented. I pointed out that calling people sick and diseased for desires they held but no actions they had taken was bullshit then, and was bullshit now, and headed off the inevitable “This is different!” dodge by bringing up the treatment of those into BDSM as well. If it was wrong to condemn these two groups of people as irredeemable perverts, in need of chemical or ballistic correction, why wasn’t it wrong for this third group? What was different about them.
I didn’t ever get an answer, because I was promptly banned from RPG.net for a week. To compare these groups was forbidden.
It was then that I really got a feel for how deeply RPG.net had gotten into its own dogma. I spent the week away hanging out in other places on the Internet (founding this blog, for instance), and when my ban expired, I announced that I had no interest in returning. It had become too clear to me that RPG.net had ceased to even pretend to neutrality towards those it had agreed deserved its hatred and scorn. Merely failing to condemn a hated group in mention was enough to earn an infraction, and to say “Hey, these people you’re calling a hate group are not, in my experience, more hateful than these other people here.” got you shown the door immediately and irrevocably.
So I made my thread, said my goodbyes, (and had my goodbye thread promptly closed without comment, but hey, mysterious are the ways of the mods and all that), and went my own way, only logging back to RPG.net to monitor the state of things, and posted only in response to Life Events from posters I knew from before.
And that was the way of things, until the Election, and RPG.net lost its collective shit.
I am not in the 46% of the country who was presumably pleased as punch with the outcome of last November, but nor was I one of the people then (nor am I now) one of the people who believes that President Trump with be the Final Seal of the Apocalypse. I believe (to digress briefly into politics) that Trump’s term of office will be marked by bad, shortsighted decisions and backwards progress on many important issues, but that things will get better in 2020. (Or, if things go really, really weirdly and specifically in the next two years, 2024.)
This was not the modal belief on RPG.net. RPG.net’s inward spiral of allowable opinions had essentially created a situation where people in the right groups were granted sympathy towards themselves and sanctions towards their enemies by performing fear and outrage. And the best way to be able to perform fear and outrage is to be genuinely fearful and outraged. There was such an outpouring of doom and gloom that the moderators had to restrict political topics of all stripes for a time.
It was as this was calming down that, when I logged in for my weekly check-in and reminder for how the Other Half posted, I was greeted with an announcement banner, usually used to announce holidays, significant changes in policies, or deaths of notable members of the RPG community. This banner, however, simply read “No hate. No fear. Everyone is welcome here.”
Those were damn fine words, and I decided to take them as a sign. The madness of the election seemed to be calming down, and I’d been away for over a year at this point. I still had friends on RPG.net, and I missed them, and I had that WIR.
So I resumed posting. I resolved to stay out of the political sub-forum for a time, and for a time, things were well.
But the pressure of RPG.net’s politics wore on me. People continued to be harshly banned for using the wrong word or mentioning the wrong group without cursing them, and the RPG.net moderation’s favoritism towards their chosen groups continued. I enjoyed my time in RPG.net less and less, and as I was growing less and less worried about being capriciously banned, I started spending more time in the political subforum, and seeing how deep the rot was going. Which, in turn, made me even less likely to care, and so on.
I’ll just go ahead and quote a few excerpts.
Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.
What can universities do? Well, that’s easier. Stop hiring white cis men (except as needed to get/retain people who are not white cis men) until the problem goes away. If you think this is a bad or un-serious idea, your sexism/racism/transphobia is showing.
If you are on a hiring committee, and you are looking at applicants and you see a stellar white male applicant, think long and hard about whether your department needs another white man. You are not hiring a researching robot who will output papers from a dark closet. You are hiring an educator, a role model, a spokesperson, an advisor, a committee person. When you hire a non-marginalized person, you are not just supporting this one applicant whom you like, you are rewarding a person who has been rewarded his whole life. You are justifying the system that makes his application look so good. You are not innocent. You are perpetuating a system that requires your participation if not your consent. When your female students of color have no role models in your department, that’s not “meritocracy”; that’s on you. Again, if you think the “great mathematicians” are disproportionately male because of meritocracy, then your sexism is showing.
And, to RPG.net’s credit, there were many voices saying “This is some bullshit, here.” But there were many more voices glorying in the article’s thesis, and complaining about the general state of math departments being “male, stale, and pale”.
And that was then I decided I’d found my hill. I knew very well that posting at all on these topics in support of the Non-Approved Demographic Groups got people sanctioned, but I had pretty much lost interest in remaining part of a community that claimed to be welcoming towards all people, and let this shit slide.
“Hey, guys.” I posted (No direct quotes here, since again I’m banned. We’ll get to those in a moment.) “Is this really a problem? Are math departments really that pale? I dug up some fairly large and very reputable studies, and they seemed to say that just about 45% percent of new PhDs in math were going to people of color.” (There was a gender tangent as well, but since it didn’t get brought up in The Events, I’m skipping it. Again, full context in the thread link.)
This got a response. (And since past this point, everything got emailed to me in my infraction notices, I’ve got quotes.)
In the same AMS survey you note, you’ll find that the minorities you’re seeing PhDs awarded to are almost exclusively Asian. 40.3% of new PhDs were awarded to Asians.
0.5% to American Indians and Alaska Natives
3.4% to Hispanics
2.5% to African Americans
For reference, the breakdown of Asians, NI/AN, Hispanics and African Americans in the U.S. Census? 4.8%, 0.9%, 16.3%, 12.6%
This was completely true, of course; these were what my numbers said.
My response, my post which ended in me being permabanned from RPG.net was as follows.
Are Asians not people of color?
Or perhaps the assertion here is that the academic system currently and has always coddled Asians, so that they’ve never experienced any kind of systemic bias which might discourage them from attempting to move forward in academica?
Or…huh. You know, that’s right. 40% of PhDs are going to a racial group that’s 5% of the population. The problem isn’t white people; it’s that academia is wildly biased in favor of Asians. White people, by contrast, are about 70% of the population, and are getting less than half of the PhDs.
So, let’s go back to that article, and fix it. We have a huge, huge number of Asians to discriminate against in the field of math long before we should get to the white people, right?
These were not nice questions. They were asked to dig deep into the ridiculous assertions of the article, and the general idea that collegiate math as a discipline is prejudiced against people of color. To answer any of these questions would be either to claim with a straight face that college math departments were far more wildly biased in favor of Asian students than any other group (certainly including whites) and that any kind of corrective action should lead with them, then move onto the Jews…or to acknowledge that (for many reasons) different demographic groups had different numbers of people with the ability and inclination to perform higher-level math, and seeing those disparities didn’t prove racism.
I got one response to the post (a series of image macros of people butting heads with walls and desks), and the below ban statement.
1 Month Ban
This is blatantly racist trolling. The only reason I am not going straight to a permaban is because I want to give the other mods a chance to talk me down first, but this may well happen anyway.
I should mention that I had a bit of a fracas with my HOA about the precise dimensions of a trellis added to my garden, and the exact definition of “exterior alteration”, so I was perhaps not in the best frame of mood to write an appeal designed to soften the hearts of the RPG.net moderation staff.
I did actually look over my appeal once it was written. “This is probably going to get me perma’d.” I said.
A moment later, I shrugged. “Fuck it. Any place that’d kick me out for saying this isn’t a place I wanna be.”
I have decided to appeal the infraction I was given in response to the post, linked below:
The reason given for my infraction was ‘blatantly racist trolling’.
First, I will totally cop to using pointed rhetorical questions and snark in my reply. If the administration staff of RPG.net feel that this is worthy of a month-long ban which needed to be talked down not to be an insta-perma, well, I did indeed do those things, so I’ll accept that.
What I did not do was post anything racist, or at least, anything more racist than the content of the OP, and the many posters claiming that mathematics, as a field, was choked with cis white men.
I asked if Asians are persons of color, in response to someone bringing up the specific Asian rate of PhD achievement as a counterargument to the number of persons of color.
I made sarcastic reference to the systemic bias against Asian applicants to elite colleges, in the vein of pointing out the unlikelihood that academia would be so selective and specific in its biases as to try to artificiality limit the number of Asian students in general admissions, only to favor them in graduate studies.
And finally, I simply use the logic of the original article, but applied to a group that’s not cis white men. I make a Swiftian proposal that we address the perceived racial injustice in the field of academic math, exactly of the type that the original article does, and with actual numbers backing me up.
RPG.net is your house; we post there under your rules, or not at all. But unless ‘racism’ now means ‘saying the kinds of things people say about cis white men about other groups’, I don’t see how I violated those rules. If it is the Official RPG.net Policy that “There are too many whites in math.” is not a racist statement, and “There are too many Asians in math.” is a deeply racist statement, well, I’m tempted to pull out a dictionary and start a conversation, but again, your house, your rules.
If, however, it is not the intention of RPG.net administration to encourage claims against some groups and strongly decry others, I suggest that you reduce or rescind my infraction.
I didn’t actually get a reply in the month of my absence from RPG.net, which I took as a good sign. I didn’t actually expect the mods as I understood them to possibly re-examine their fundamental assumptions, that racism was only a thing that could happen to races without the favor of powerful people, and that they had the responsibility to use their absolute power over RPG.net to confirm that. But hey, I didn’t get perma’d for Mod Sass or Backtalk, so I counted it as a victory at the time.
Then I logged back on, took a look at what had happened in my absence, and shook my head. Things had gotten hilariously bad in my absence this time. The highlight was probably the giant debacle over the proposed woman-only showing of Wonder Woman, charmingly hash-tagged #MasculinitySoFragile, which lead to a number of infractions, but no mod statements along the lines of “Hey, saying that you want people to be excluded from public events and services for your sex, and then replying that people calling you on your nakedly sexist bullshit, ain’t cool.”
I was deciding whether or not to pen another departure notice when an email in my inbox made the choice for me.
[This should have been issued prior to the expiration of his ban, but we mislaid the paperwork. It is not a new policy to wait for bans to expire to issue permabans, nothing is a new policy, there are never new policies, do not come to TT and ask if something is a new policy.]
After one of the worst appeals we have ever seen (right up there with the dozen pages long one claiming the poster was an inquisitor of the Church of England and a literal believer in the Ruinous Powers from Warhammer*,) we have decided to up your ban length to permanent.
*Yes, these were claims we really saw in an appeal.**
**Yes, they were in the same appeal.
And that was that. And, just as with the relationship with my ex which ended with “Robert, I can’t keep dating you. You’re too scientific. You’d corrupt our children.” completely removed the sting of the break-up by reminding me that nothing of value had been lost, so did my departure from RPG.net end with a laugh.
It was, indeed, as unreasonable as a Khorne-worshipping Church of England inquisitor to expect the mods and admins of RPG.net to react in any way other than what they did. I had hoped for it, that perhaps by laying out my point in clear, simple statements, I might have triggered at least some measure of internal discussion, some consideration of the state of things, or maybe even some examination of what else was said in the thread.
I didn’t get that. But I did get the dubious honor of being perma’d from RPG.net for asking 4 simple questions.
Also, just to give another clear indication, I’d like to point out another poster, who similarly received a month-long-to-perma-ban right before I received mine. This poster, AskaKesk, opened a thread to discuss state censorship, specifically around hate speech.
One poster offered as a definition “Hate speech has as its purpose to shut down the speech of other groups, usually minorities.” AskaKesk pointed out “AFAICT, by your definition a law against hate speech includes itself. I mean, Nazis are a group and the law strives to shut their speech down. And I certainly hope they are a minority. Otherwise I fear for the future of Germany.”
He was promptly banned with the message “This is trolling, full stop. Don’t defend nazism or any other hate group on rpg.net.”
Apparently, pointing out that Nazis are a minority of the population, and being glad that this is the case, is defending them.
And so, this is basically the state of things. I do not begrudge the moderators…OK. Cards on the table, I begrudge them a fair bit. I think that they are embodying to the point of caricature the social ills they claim to fight, and that they’ve gotten to this point because they have abused their authority and stifled honest dissent on their cherished positions. I think that they are wrong, and making RPG.net worse by continuing in their moderation.
But, as I said, their house, their rules. RPG.net is their forum to moderate, and they have the right to exclude people for any reason or no reason at all. They have gotten rid of many people with no stronger offered reason than “We don’t think this poster is a good fit for the forum.”
Well, as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is more than mutual. RPG.net is not a good fit for me. I wish the posters still there the best of luck, but I’m out, and have no interest in appealing in 6 months to try to get back in.